Each and every year, the coming of age picture, the film following a child or group of children dealing with a changing place in an ever changing world, come as often as comic book movies during the summer film season. However, very few, if any, are ever as singular or as breathtakingly affecting as the new Drafthouse Films release, the perfectly titled I Declare War.
I Declare War introduces us to a handful of young 13-year-old children, caught in the throes of a game of “war.” Split between two teams, each squad is led by their ever so cunning and clever general. On one side there is PK, a mop-topped youngster who along with his team attempts to take down a team led by Quinn, a tech expert who is about to launch a series of planes carrying one of the game’s biggest weapons, balloons filled with red paint which are ostensibly their version of grenades. However, the game isn’t without its rules. Your standard game of Capture The Flag, their game finds rocks and balloons as grenades, various twigs as guns and trees as their control towers, the ultimate weapon at their disposal is their own imagination.
However, as one will discover throughout this film, while each child takes on some aspects of normal war film clichés (ranging from the coup-leading second in command to the violence hungry gunner), the more startling thing is that each kid takes on aspects of what it truly feels like to grow up.
And in that, these children are far and away the film’s greatest aspect.
Taking on a cast of entirely teenage actors, writer/director Jason Lapeyre (and co-helmer Robert Wilson), this collection of young talent is utterly superb. The film is led by Gage Munroe as the closest thing to a lead the film has, and inarguably the greatest performance given here. He has the honor of portraying the character with seemingly the most depth here, both a brilliant strategist as well as a kid hell bent on being as loyal as he is bright, but one that will do whatever is needed to get that ever important W. Siam Yu plays his right hand man, Kwon, with Spencer Howes, Andy Reid and Kolton Stewart all taking on roles as the rest of PK’s crew.
Opposite them is Aidan Gouveia as Quinn, who is ultimately dispatched by the psychotic Skinner, played wonderfully brazen by Michael Friend. Mackenzie Munro stars as Jess, the brash young girl of the group, seemingly only there to get close to the abruptly-sent-home Quinn, and the likes of Alex Cardillo and Dyson Fyke as the duo of Frost and Sikorski. All of the actors here really bring their A-game to a film that for all intents and purposes shouldn’t be as affecting as it is, turning this into a deeply profound look at youth nearing the heights of the obviously influential Stand By Me.
That said, the writer and directors here deserve more than their fair share of credit as well. While each performance intellectually mines aspects of both war film tropes and the act of actually growing up at the age of 13 (from the idea of doing whatever is needed to get close to a person you like or the sadness found in growing apart from a once close friend), the greatest attribute this film carries is its intense love for childhood imagination. With the film jumping back and forth from a simple game of Capture the Flag to what appears to be the most intense battle ever fought by children on American soil, directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson craft a film that will in one frame give us a charming glimpse of a child harmlessly pretending that a hodge podge of twigs is a weapon to the next frame of showing us the same kid with an actual bazooka in his hand, the violence here is both off putting (especially during the “kill” sequences, which amounts to each kid simply being sent home for the day) and yet utterly relatable.
Each and every adult can relate to having a game of war like this, turning their lives into the most intense and visceral battles one could ever imagine. There is a viscerally kinetic nature to each of these sequences, and while some of the beats here verge on being a bit too off putting, they speak to undying truths about everything from having a crush for the first time or trying to win back a kid you once were best friends with, but have since fallen apart from. A deeply affecting and profound romp of an adolescent actioner, I Declare War is a generation defining meditation on youth, and a coming of age tale that rivals any of its iconic brethren from the 1980s.
Overall, while I Declare War may be an odd watch for those averse to seeing children in the act of playing a relatively violent game, the film is a powerful time capsule from days where our biggest issues were trying to impress the cute guy or girl that caught our affections or trying to make new friends and keep old ones. With beautiful direction, wonderful performances, and even some interesting work with regards to its use of war film tropes and clichés, I Declare War is an utter gem of a film that should not be missed, particularly now as it finally makes its way into theaters after a run on VOD.